review: odd thomas

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (2003)

Though I have liked both of the books I have read by Dean Koontz in the past (Fear Nothing and Phantoms) he isn’t one of my go-to authors.  My perception of his work and the fact that his name is frequently spoken in the same breath as Stephen King’s (and as it happens, the books of these two writers are often found on the same shelves, almost back to back with each other), I tend to think of his novels as residing more in the horror genre than anything else.  Horror isn’t a genre I seek out all that often because I don’t like to be scared.  Life in the 21st century is plenty scary enough.  But then every time I read a book by Koontz I remember that it isn’t that his books are really horror.  Instead they are suspenseful and you don’t always know what awaits the characters around the next corner.  If you haven’t ever picked up a book by Dean Koontz because you’re also not a fan of the horror genre, but you do like suspenseful stories that will keep you turning the pages, give Odd Thomas a try. Continue reading

review: cursed city

Cursed City by William Massa (2016)

Do you ever get into reading slumps?  You know, those periods when you search and search for something to read (even though you have tons of books already on your bookshelf just waiting for your attention) but nothing ever really sparks your interest? When you read sample after sample and give up before you get to the end? When you force yourself to finish the book you took a chance on even though it doesn’t fully capture you and demand you keep turning the pages? Well, this is where I have been for the last few weeks.  I have started several books but haven’t finished one, and I’ve spent way more hours scrolling through my options on Amazon than is good for me.  At last, I opted for Cursed City and I read it from start to finish in one day. While I feel terribly accomplished in that I actually met my reading goal for the week (to read just one book), I’m not enthusing about the book itself. Continue reading

review: one snowy night

One Snowy Night by Jill Shalvis (2016)

This novella is book number 2.5 in Jill Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay series (preceded by Sweet Little Lies and The Trouble with Mistletoe, and followed by Accidentally on Purpose, which I reviewed here). One of the good things about this series is that each book stands alone and the books can be read in any order. I’ve said this before and will say it again, Jill Shalvis is one of those authors whose books I will always check out because I know exactly what I’m going to get. I don’t know if I would put her in my list of favorites, but she’s dependable and entertaining and hasn’t ever disappointed me.

One Snowy Night is an easy and quick read. I tried to read with my “reader” hat on but somehow my “writer” hat kept demanding to be worn. While reading, the development of the main characters—Max Stranton and Rory Andrews—preoccupied my mind as well as the basic story structure. The story is told through Max and Rory’s alternating third person point of view, and while I would say that the narrative is split fairly evenly between them, I wouldn’t say that by the end of the story I know either of them especially well. Sure, I know them in terms of their current situation—Rory has agreed to accept a ride from Max as they both travel from San Francisco to Tahoe on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with their families. Perhaps that is attributable to the short narrative as well as the fact that the story itself takes place within a time frame of approximately twelve hours.

The desire for forgiveness is what drives Rory’s character. What haunts her is the way she left home. At seventeen, she ran away from home after her junior year in high school in order to escape a household where she didn’t fit in and a family who blamed her for things she hadn’t done. Six years later, she is finally returning home and fears that she will do something to make her family continue to believe she is flaky and undependable. Proving that she has changed is the thing that drives all of her actions and emotions. In the end, it is her interactions with Max during the drive from San Francisco to Tahoe that shows what kind of person she is, and it’s up to her family to see and accept for themselves the woman she has become.

While Rory’s character arc is clearly defined, Max’s is a bit blurry and indistinct. He is haunted by the same incident in Rory’s past but his experience of it was different and he begins the story blaming Rory for what he thinks was her part in it. During the drive, he learns the truth about what actually happens, and this does change the way he sees Rory and allows him to act on the attraction he has felt for her in the time that they have both lived in San Francisco. Max travels a flat character arc through the story. He doesn’t change in any significant way (yes, it can be argued that he admits his love for Rory and that that is a significant change, but in my mind, this is a romance and that is what is expected and without that element the whole story fails to work). Rather, he reflects Rory’s positive change arc and assists her along the way, ensuring that once she does finally make it to her family home, her opinion of who she is and understanding that she is no longer the seventeen-year-old girl who ran away from home six years is what matters most. She won’t be devastated if her family doesn’t see the change and we feel confident that she’ll continue to be who she is even if she doesn’t have her family’s acceptance.

The structure of the story is also difficult to define in absolute terms. When it comes to story structure, I’m looking for the following six key turning points in the plot: catalyst, big event, midpoint, crisis, showdown, revelation. One Snowy Night does have external conflicts and obstacles that the characters must overcome along with inner conflicts that the characters must resolve. And yet, the lines between acts one, two and three are blurry and indistinct, and in my opinion, the turning points are largely absent. This is more observation than judgmental. The story moves along fine and has good pacing; there wasn’t a moment when I wanted to put the book down and stop reading.

If you’re looking for a few hours of escape into a book and want a light romance, One Snowy Night delivers. If you want something a bit deeper and more complex, I can recommend the first book in the series, Sweet Little Lies and the third book, Accidentally on Purpose. If you’ve already read every book in this series, well, then, perhaps like me you’re waiting for Spence’s story to finally be told in Chasing Christmas Eve.

Have you read One Snowy Night? Hit the comments and tell me what you thought of it.

review: just one touch

Just One Touch by Maya Banks (2017)

For the part of me that is a writer, it is a challenging task to write this book review.  I find myself wanting to temper my comments and yet I know that I just need to come right out and say what I’m really thinking.  What I’m really thinking is that this book isn’t any good.  I have read and liked other books by Maya Banks in the past, but this one definitely is not like the others, and in this case that’s a bad thing.  The only reason that I got to the end of the book was because, well, I forced myself to keep reading.  Not because I thought it would get better (I didn’t and it didn’t) and not because I have some sort of personal rule about finishing every book I begin (I don’t and have given up on countless books).  The idea of the story had potential, but it was wasted time and time again.  I’m putting this book into my newly minted “Don’t Bother” category of books, and here’s why.

In theory, Just One Touch should be able to stand alone.  It is the fifth book in Banks’ Slow Burn series; however, the series isn’t serial in nature in that the events of one book are a continuation of or dependent upon the events that took place in the book or books that came before it.  The books are set in the same world and you will see characters from previous books make appearances; however, these do not have to be read in order, so you can jump in at any point or pick and choose to read the stories that appeal to you.  One of the problems with the book is that even as it tries (and fails) to stand alone, it reveals a lot of the details of other books in the series to the point that if you hadn’t read the others, you’d already have them spoiled for you.  In addition, if you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you will be confused by some of the actions of the supporting characters.  What’s more, you’ll be called upon to care about the fate of those characters in this book, to be empathetic and sympathetic toward them, but if you haven’t read each of their stories, that aspect of the story will be lost to you and only further decrease the odds that you’ll enjoy the book.  In my opinion, if you’re going to write a series you have to either (1) have each book be a link in a sequential chain, where you must read them in order, or (2) have the books exist within the same world and with recurring characters but each book can and does stand on its own.  For this reader, Just One Touch misses the mark.

The characters, as well as the development of those characters, also fails to deliver.  There’s no real depth to either the male protagonist or female protagonist.  Instead, Isaac and Jenna are both cardboard, two-dimensional stick figures who do what they’re supposed to do but are in no way engaging or interesting.  Both characters’ pasts are shrouded in mystery.  At least, I think that’s the intent.  I’m not spoiling anything by saying that at the beginning of the story, Jenna has escaped from a cult.  Though the question of how she came to be a member of the cult is answered in the faintest of terms by the end of the story, the answer itself is rendered meaningless because I don’t ever get to the point where I really care.  Likewise, Isaac’s history is also shrouded in secrecy, and though the intent is to show that whatever is in his past haunts him to the point that he needs a kind of spiritual healing, it’s never specifically spelled out what, exactly, haunts him.  I didn’t ever really know who the main characters were, and I was never invested in them.  There were moments when Jenna in particular is supposed to be read as strong, selfless, and courageous.  Honestly, I kept thinking “Is this really the choice you’re going to make? Seriously?”.  She’s not believable as a character.  None of the character development worked for me.

Oh, and this is a romance, right?  Not only was I not invested in Isaac and Jenna as separate characters, I wasn’t invested in their love story either.  There was never any chemistry between them, no tension, nothing to make it hard for me to look away and put the book down.

There’s also the dimension of suspense, right? The villain of the story (and yes, in my mind villain is the accurate term to use here instead of antagonist because the character isn’t nearly complex enough to earn that descriptor) is yet another cardboard figure.  Apparently, nothing more than evil and a quest for immortality drive his actions.  Throughout the story, his machinations are nothing more than plot devices.  The crisis/all is lost moment in the story is quite predictable and the showdown is anticlimactic at best.

Then there’s the epilogue.  Don’t read it.  Trust me, just skip it altogether.  If I hadn’t been reading on my e-reader I would have thrown the book against the wall.  As it is, I’m rolling my eyes and shuddering just thinking about it.

It’s rare that I give a book a one-star rating.  I know from experience how hard it is to write a story from start to finish, and consequently, I typically choose not to review books if I think I’m going to struggle to find good things to say about it. I’m changing my mentality (or trying to change it) on that because I think if you’re a writer, you can learn from books that are not executed or written well. That’s what Just One Touch is for me.  A lesson on what not to do in my own writing.

review: black wings

Black Wings by Christina Henry (2010)

I have another first-in-series book to write about, this time Black Wings by Christina Henry.  It fits into the urban fantasy genre and takes place in one of my favorite cities–Chicago (I wonder if the protagonist and Harry Dresden have run into each other). This series follows the story of Madeline “Maddy” Black, who is an Agent of death (if you’re a Supernatural fan, think of her as a Reaper).  Maddy’s job is to escort souls of the newly departed to the Door, which presumably leads them to the afterlife.  Being an Agent gives her a set of black wings and the ability to fly, but it’s not a paying job and she does her best to get by.  As you would expect from the first book in an urban fantasy series, Maddy’s life is about to change drastically.

Since this is the first book in a series, Henry has some world-building to do.  The best place to start is Maddy’s job as an Agent.  In this world, death is treated as a bureaucracy, where Agents receive schedules each week telling them where and when to collect souls and have supervisors to answer to if they don’t meet their quotas–that is, convincing souls to choose to walk through the Door. Souls that refuse are cursed to walk the earth forever as ghosts.  Maddy’s boss is J.B. Bennett, who loves rules and paperwork and accountability.  Maddy does not like him, but she does have to deal with him and it appears that he will be one of the supporting characters as the series progresses.  Another aspect of this world is that it is populated with fallen angels.  We learn this early in the story that Maddy’s father, whom she has never known or met, is one of these fallen angels and that as his only human child, he values her greatly.  These fallen angels also have begotten nephilim–the monster children born of their human consorts.  Maddy’s father, as well as the foremost of fallen angels–Lucifer–will also be part of the supporting cast, playing roles somewhere between antagonist and ally.  There are also gargoyles in this world.  Beezle has been both friend and family to Maddy for years, and he fills the role of protector but also comic relief and confidant.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Gabriel Angeloscuro.  He, too, plays the role of protector but he is also the primary love interest (which is a subplot of the novel and doesn’t ever overtake the main plot of the story).  Gabriel is also the character who will help Maddy navigate this new world that she learns she is a part of but knows nothing about.  It is clear, from the way the book ends, that he will also perhaps be used as a pawn by those who want something from Maddy, and that he may become her greatest weakness.

Unlike Harry Dresden, Maddy is not a private detective by trade, and unlike Cat Crawfield she is not on a mission to save innocents by destroying vampires one at a time.  Maddy is simply a woman trying to do her job and make ends meet.  She becomes an accidental detective of sorts, pulled into tracking down a killer for reasons that start out being more personal than professional.  In this way, she is a likable and relatable character, thrust into a world that she doesn’t understand, trying to figure things out as she goes along, and making mistakes along the way.  The story is told entirely from her first-person point of view, and it works in this story because we only know what she knows and we’re stumbling through the story trying to figure out the puzzle just like she is.  Her development from the start of the book to the end is believable, and there is plenty room for more change and growth as the series continues.  The book really feels like it’s an origin story, that she is only at the start of her journey in becoming who she will be several books down the line.  I find that I am pulled into her character’s potential and want to see what else is in store for her.

There are some elements of the book that will be familiar to readers of the genre. Maddy has daddy issues (with good reason), she is a loner and mostly alone in the world when we first meet her, she is beset by foes that are much more powerful and knowledgeable than she is and who play by a completely different set of rules that she has yet to learn or even understand.  In this way the book adheres to the conventions of urban fantasy.  Still, it’s different enough that it isn’t a mere derivative of a more popular, better constructed series.  There was enough to like in this book for me want to read the next book in the series, Black Night.  My final verdict is that if you are looking for a new author to sample or a new series to try, add Black Wings to your to-read list.  I would also say that if you are a fan of Supernatural, this book may appeal to you as well.  It has that same feel to me and I think it has the potential to build an intricate world and mythology in the same way that the show has and payoff your investment in the characters and the larger story that Henry is telling.  Again, this is the first book in the series and I’ll have to wait and see what happens in the second book, but for now, I am looking forward to Maddy’s next adventure.